Skip to main content Skip to navigation

French Revolution 1: Origins

Debate over the origins of the French Revolution dates back to the Revolution itself. As early as 1790, Edmund Burke depicted revolutionaries as ‘atheists and madmen’ – as misguided enthusiasts of the Enlightenment. Burke was not a neutral observer. He sought actively to stir up counterrevolution in Europe. Indeed, many interpretations of the French Revolution, even those of professional scholars, have had political overtones. This is why the event’s historiography is so fascinating: It tells us not only about a dramatic episode in French history but also about the political imaginations of those who study it. Competing views about democracy often lie just beneath the surface of historical analysis.

During the heyday of the Marxist interpretation in the twentieth century –between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the 1970s – historians tended to focus on ‘society’. While Marxists saw 1789 as marking the bourgeoisie’s seizure of power from the aristocracy, first wave revisionists (1950s-1970s) endeavoured to show that those classes either did not exist or did not have the ‘class consciousness’ required to carry out a revolution. Second wave revisionism, which began in the 1970s, turned away from the socio-economic to examine ‘political culture’. Emphasis was put on struggles over sovereignty (representation or direct democracy) and the rise of a critical ‘public sphere’. Over the past decade or so, historians have sought to recover the social and economic dimensions of the Revolution’s origins, though the usefulness of Marxist categories continues to be debated.

Seminar Questions

  1. What is ‘culture’ for Roger Chartier? How can it explain the French Revolution’s origins? What are ‘origins’ in any case, and how do they differ from ‘causes’?
  2. The Bourbon monarchy had defaulted on loans many times during the Old Regime but did not succumb to revolution. What was different in 1789?
  3. What was ‘privilege’ in the Old Regime? How did it figure in the regime’s final crisis of the late 1780s?
  4. Should the return of the ‘social’ in interpretations of the French Revolution be welcomed? How should social analysis be approached?

Core Reading

  • William Doyle, A Very Short History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), chaps 1-2.
  • Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), intro, chaps 2, 8.
  • Gail Bossenga, ‘The Financial Origins of the French Revolution’ and Jack Goldstone, “The Social Origins of the French Revolution” in Thomas Kaiser and Dale Van Kley (eds.), From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) – ebook.

Further Reading

Be sure to consult the general overviews of the French Revolution listed on the ‘General Bibliography’ above.

Political Origins

  • John Hardman, French Politics, 1774-1789: From the Accession of Louis XVI to the Fall of the Bastille (London: Longman, 1995).
  • Munro Price, The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil (London: Macmillan, 2002).
  • Jean Egret, The French Prerevolution, 1787-1789, Wesley D. Camp (trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

Social Origins

  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, R. R. Palmer (trans.), Timothy Tackett (intro) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Read especially Tackett’s introduction.
  • Albert Soboul, ‘Classes and Class Struggles during the French Revolution Classes and Class Struggles during the French Revolution,’ in Understanding the French Revolution, April Ane Knutson (trans) (New York: International Press, 1989).
  • Colin Jones, ‘Bourgeois Revolution Revivified: 1789 and Social Change’ in Colin Lucas (ed.), Rewriting the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
  • Idem, ‘The Great Chain of Buying: Medical Advertisement, the Bourgeois Public Sphere, and the Origins of the French Revolution,’ American Historical Review, 101: 1 (1996), 13-40.
  • Henry Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815 (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005).

For criticism of the social interpretation:

  • George V. Taylor, ‘Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution,’ in American Historical Review, 72: 2 (Jan 1967), 469-496.
  • Elizabeth Eisenstein, ‘Who Intervened in 1789? A Commentary on The Coming of the French Revolution,’ American Historical Review 71: 1 (Oct 1965), 77-103.
  • Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Economic Origins

  • Philip T. Hoffman and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, ‘New Work in French Economic History’, French Historical Studies, 23: 3 (2000), 439-453; see also his Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450-1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  • George Grantham, ‘The French Cliometric Revolution: A Survey of Cliometric Contributions to French Economic History’, European Review of Economic History, 1:3 (1997), 353-405.
  • Michael Kwass, Privilege and the Politics of Taxation in Eighteenth-Century France: Liberté, Égalité, Fiscalité (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Paul Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce: Globalization and the French Monarchy (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt and William Max Nelson (eds.), The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2013)

Three Essays

  • Michael Kwass, ‘The Global Underground: Smuggling, Rebellion, and the Origins of the French Revolution’
  • Lynn Hunt, ‘The Global Financial Origins of the French Revolution’
  • Charles Walton, ‘The Fall from Eden: The Free-Trade Origins of the French Revolution’

Cultural, Intellectual, and Religious Origins

  • Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Prerevolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995).
  • Keith M. Baker, Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • David A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Sarah Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The causes célèbres of pre-Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
  • Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  • Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, 1560-1791 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
  • Harvey Chisick, ‘Public Opinion and Political Culture in France During the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century’, English Historical Review no. 470 (2002), 48-77.